Fennel is one of those foods that was so common growing up in an Italian family, I naturally thought everyone ate it. Later in life, I realized that most people I knew had never tried it. For us, it was the equivalent of a treat after dinner, a snack before bed, or part of our packed lunch if we were lucky. Fennel, I guess, is like celery sticks to my non-Italian peeps. If you haven’t tried them, you best do so – you will be adding them to your weekly grocery list! Now when I say ‘like celery sticks’ I am of course talking about the bulb of the fennel.
There are tall flowering fennel plants that are both wild and cultivated that are harvested for the flowers, stems, and seeds. These are used widely in cooking around the world, more so in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures. The pollen is the most potent part of this plant but the seed is what is most commonly used in Italian cooking and baking. Although the seeds can be eaten, when we describe eating raw fennel we are referring to what is known as Florence Fennel. This is a smaller plant that grows a large bulb in the ground which is what you eat – in Italian this is called “finocchio“. It’s a super crispy and refreshing vegetable with a strong aroma and licorice-like flavour. It is often mistakingly called anise which is another herb with similar characteristics but no edible bulb.
Fennel, or finocchio, is quite a versatile vegetable. Personally, I love it best raw but I also enjoy it cooked in various ways as it adds so much to any dish. It especially works well with pork, veal, and fish. Years ago I did a photo-shoot for a chef who was showcasing fennel with different dishes. If I can track him down I would love to share two of these dishes with you, one was with lamb and the other with scallops. I’m not usually a huge fan of scallops but those always stuck in my mind with the grilled fennel and seared scallops and whatever was in that saucy goodness, oh man! Anyway, with all this said….if I gotta choose, raw is the way I go with fennel. I’m extremely happy that my kids like it as it’s a healthy snack and I get to eat up the outer leaves while making their lunches! It will definitely be seeded in the garden this spring.
Next time you’re grocery shopping, grab yourself a fennel bulb and try it. If you like it raw then you’ll want to try this salad. It is so simple but the flavours rock together! We use blood oranges but if they aren’t in season go ahead and grab a couple of oranges or pink grapefruit. Blood oranges are sweeter than your typical orange and the sweetness in them has a hint of berry flavour. There were a few ‘sanguinello’ trees on my Nonno’s farm and these were one of treats always snuck into the suitcase when coming back from Italy when we were younger – whaaaaat, we would never do that:) Nowadays of course no need to travel to Italy for a few oranges, check your grocery store in the winter months for these and taste the difference for yourself. Yeah, maybe not fresh picked from the tree but here in Ontario Canada we’re lucky to get them and their unique flavour kicks this salad dressing out of the park so well worth looking for!
Thinly sliced fennel with a sweet but tangy blood orange vinaigrette.
- 1 medium bulb fennel
- 2 blood oranges
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp red wine vinegar
- pinch black pepper
- Cut off the tops of the fennel and remove the tough outer layer. Rinse and pat dry.
- Cut the fennel into 4 and slice thinly. Place in a bowl.
- Peel and remove the skin of 1 blood orange and separate into wedges or slice into rounds.
- Juice the other blood orange .
- Add the olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper to the blood orange juice and whisk together.
- Pour over the sliced fennel and top with the blood orange wedges or slices.